Field Trips Provide Real-Life Encounters

From ‘Swamp Slog’ To Wildlife Shipments

Waiters in smart buttoned-up jackets wielding tempting platters of hors d’oeuvres were just beginning to flit around the Intercontinental Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, ready for their first hungry guests, as Don Hopey arrived in the front lobby.

One of the first explorers to arrive back at base from the various field trips organized as part of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 21st annual conference in Miami, he wasn’t about to let a food opportunity pass him by – even if he had just enjoyed a rather exotic snack while out on the water.

“The other groups won’t be back for hours – have you seen the traffic outside? That food upstairs, it’s all ours,” he joked. “Just don’t tell them we’ve already had sushi on the back of the boat.”

His all-day trip – headlined “Gone Fishing: Sportfishing, Tourism and the Challenges of Protecting Fish Stocks” – explored the issue of sustainable recreational fishing off the South Florida coast. About 35 SEJ conference guests talked with fishermen and conservationists and discussed how the recreational fishing industry is moving closer to more eco-friendly practices.

Then, perhaps demonstrating their newfound expertise about which fish are most at risk and which the least, they let out their lines for a few hours, hauled in 15 species, including albacore, dolphin and a seven-foot sailfish (“It was this big … no, it was this big,” said Hopey, who writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, spreading his arms ever wider) and released those that the ocean cannot afford to give up. “The ones we kept, we fileted them up on the back of the boat and yum!”

The trip was one of nine organized to give conference attendees close-up, real-life, hands-on encounters with some of the environmental issues they write about, or want to know more about, or perhaps had never even contemplated before.

“We got beautiful weather, a great group, the speakers were to the point and targeted and, frankly, exceptionally organized,” said Hopey. “By the way, did I tell you I was one of the tour leaders?”

The groups flowed back in to the hotel in various states of smartness or dishevelment, depending on the environmental challenges they faced during their day-long adventures, some wearing jolly Hawaiian shirts and shorts, others looking the part in khakis and floppy hats.

Professor Ron Steffens, from Green Mountain College in Vermont, came back with a little laundry. He was in a group of around 25 who headed out into the Everglades on a “swamp slog” led by legendary photographer Clyde Butcher. As all in his group did, he brought a little bit of the swamp back to his hotel room with him, though they changed into fresh clothes before their return, to spare themselves the discomfort of a soggy ride back to Miami.

“We were knee-deep, looking at the cypress and the birds and talking about this unique landscape. Actually being involved in the environment we write about – what an opportunity,” said Professor Steffens.

En route the group met with Ken Salazar, U.S. secretary of the Interior, to discuss what the government is doing to restore water flow to the River of Grass.

“To have the guy charged with managing all federal lands with us at one point, then be down wading in the swamp an hour later, is what makes this conference unique,” said the professor.

On the hotel’s mezzanine level, exhibitors largely representing conservation groups and environmental causes laid out their wares for journalists to learn more. There were fliers, posters, books and pamphlets on topics ranging from sea turtles to clean energy, national parks to coral reef conservation.

In the Grand Ballroom, tired day-trippers replenished their energy with drinks and nibbles provided by hosts from Nissan, Covanta Energy, the National Parks Conservation Association, Nestle Water, Bracewell and Giuliani, and Ceres. Journalists swapped notes on their day’s activities, plotted schedules for Friday’s discussion panels and flipped through glossy materials gleaned from the exhibitor stands outside.

Tom MacKenzie of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was giving away notebooks at his stand, featuring a photograph of a Florida panther on the front and what appeared to be drinks coasters bearing pictures of turtles, dolphins and other wildlife, with a mystery hook attached at the top.

“Prize for the person who can guess what these are for … Maybe earrings?” he said, hanging them alongside his face, but admitting he didn’t know the answer.

“All I know is I’m meant to be giving them out and they’ve got nice wildlife pictures,” he said.

He ran a mini-trip for reporters to Miami International Airport, the leading port for live wildlife shipments out of the United States. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors based there must check on every shipment to ensure that what lies inside is exactly what it says on the label and not an illegal export. “No one wants to receive a black mamba they didn’t expect at the other end,” said MacKenzie. Tarantulas, frogs, lizards, scorpions and tropical fish were among Thursday’s departing passengers.

Another exhibitor stand for the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation displayed a giant orange and white fish balloon but staff had lost the remote control to flap its mechanical tail. “It’s here somewhere,” said a harassed woman manning the table, delving through her purse.

The stand for the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation went one better with a real live lionfish in a small tank, its frilly brown and white fins fanning around it. It was not there to promote its own conservation.

“Wanted: lionfish hunters,” said an orange poster pinned below the tank advertising a lionfish derby in the Florida Keys – part of the effort to eliminate the invasive species.

Joseph Davis, editor of SEJ Watchdog, went on the field trip about hurricanes. “I thought it was going to be all about those cocktails they serve in New Orleans,” he joked, adding seriously: “Actually, I learned a lot.”

The visit to the National Hurricane Center and the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory addressed – but didn’t necessarily answer — questions such as: “Are hurricanes a symptom of climate change?” and demonstrated what ocean temperatures, Saharan dust and dry air contribute to a storm’s energy.

“We talked to some geeky researchers and they were telling us some really important stuff. One thing I thought was most important was the coupling between the atmosphere and the ocean during hurricanes and how much the dynamics of the ocean contribute heat and energy to the storm. And how many houses it’s going to smash in Miami,” said Davis.

“Actually they didn’t talk about the house smashing part but they did talk about how they’re getting better at measuring and forecasting with their instruments and computer modeling.”

The issue was especially topical to Davis because a tree fell on his house in Washington, D.C., during Hurricane Irene in August. The tour leader, Mark Schleifstein, triple Pulitzer Prize winner at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, had even more experience on the subject: His house was destroyed by flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Between us I guess you could say we’re a little familiar with the subject,” said Davis.

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3 responses to “Field Trips Provide Real-Life Encounters”

  1. Com Student 116 says:

    Wow, there is so much to do in South Florida! It sounds like even the journalists are learning more than they expected to find. I find the “wanted: lionfish hunters” especially interesting because when I think of conservation, I think of protecting animals, but it makes sense that conservation would include eliminating animals in order to preserve a specific environment.

  2. Justin Gould says:

    FYI. We expect out last green sea turtle nest of the season to hatch tonight on Ft. Lauderdale Beach. If anyone from SEJ is interested please contact visit

  3. Kiernan King says:

    Eco-friendly practices should be implemented more often so that people can see a difference man can have on the environment. Getting hands-on training is a great way to learn, espeically when you have to write about these experiences. “We were knee-deep, looking at the cypress and the birds and talking about this unique landscape. Actually being involved in the environment we write about – what an opportunity,” said Professor Steffens…I’m glad that Miami can provide such a wonderful learning atmosphere!